Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Ventriloquists from Laenani to Palo Alto
Having typed my grades into the UH system yesterday, I drove off this morning to Laenani Beach Park at Matson Point, and camped myself at a picnic bench (covered once by green paint, now scratched with inadvertent maps) to write in a notebook. The view is peaceful--to the right looking to sea is the Mokapu peninsula, where the USMC's base is located (but cannot be seen from such a distance); to the left the island of Mokoli`i, also known as Chinaman's Hat. There is a line of palm trees next to a sea wall, just past which some skiffs and a wooden pier bob back and forth; the sun is so bright on the water that a distant fisherman standing at the prow of his boat with a pole appeared as silhouette. There were a couple of workmen in the park, the occasional sound of a motorcycle from Kam Highway. And then, "nice place to meditate and read, isn't it?!" a man hailed me, striding toward my bench. "Are you writing a report?" he asked. Dressed in shorts, a Hawai`i themed teeshirt and a Hawai`i cap, he announced that he came from Ohio, had several months ago attended a ministers' conference in Honolulu and had--on his way to the airport to fly home--turned around to stay. He'd prayed to the Lord to tell him if he should remain in Hawai`i or not, but the Lord had told him to choose and, well you know, a guy from Ohio wants to be in Hawai`i.
The man in shorts and teeshirt and cap is an evangelist and a real estate agent (writes mortgages in Waikiki). He held in his hand a brightly colored book about evangelism by a man who draws millions to his revivals in Africa. He has another friend who preaches to hundreds of thousands in Pakistan, although it's forbidden by law. The man in shorts wants to bring such revivals to Hawai`i, so he is reading Land and Power in Hawai`i to learn about this place he so wants to help. Gavan Daws, I averred; now there's a difficult story. He asked me if I was a Christian, and I said Buddhist. He had brought Buddhists to Jesus, he said, and I should have known then to say I had errands to run.
I looked out at the distant fisherman on his boat and on the waves and the distant peninsula as the man's voice fell around me: God gave his only son ("it was a gift, you couldn't do anything for it"); God said a house divided against itself could not stand (I somehow thought Lincoln had said that, but realized he had merely echoed it). The sayings from scripture swirled about my head as his voice arrived at its favored cadence, soft-spoken yet insistent. He said he did not have a denomination, thought all of god's children. . . He had spent all day at St. John's by the sea over the weekend, helping with a church event. Here in Hawai`i a Buckeye boy might think he'd died and gone to heaven. Here everyone greeted and hugged you, and it was truly paradise. How had it taken so long for him to get to Hawai`i? When he asked if my husband was in the military, I said I had to go. As I drove away, he occupied the last picnic bench, took off his shirt, and prepared to swim.
When I arrived home, a book was waiting in the mailbox: Rachel Loden's Dick of the Dead from Ahsahta Press. Rachel Loden has long spoken for her anti-hero (and mine) Richard Nixon. She is not a helpless but a willing puppet for his voice and--as it turns out--for that of the "son" he so gave to the world, George W. Bush. Their genealogy comes clear in "The Richard Nixon Snow Globe," where the poet imagines someone making such a globe:
So he could see Dick's head inside a dome While hoodoo snow is falling On the baby bush tricked out with lights In his rancho home sweet ovum
Dick (and how I love the Facebook "Send a Dick in the Box" gimmick) haunts the White House yet, as Dr. Rice kneels for him, Libby's lawyers recognize him, "Cheney's heart is flying toward" him, and Martha Mitchell wants a kiss.
I have read many of the Nixon poems before. But what is most scary is that because not all the poems are in Nixon's voice, that voice seems (if not sounds) even more pervasive. The book becomes a paranoid fantasy that befits its prime mover. Is he speaking here? I kept wondering, or is it perhaps the poet, Bush, someone? There are as many Dick's as there are Waldo's, and Milhous is surely the Emersonian oversoul of the text.
The book contains, but is not contained by, its parodies. I was reminded of Gizelle Gajelonia's thesis (see below) when I heard echoes of Pound and Creeley, Stevens and Seinfeld emerging through the Nixonian harmonies. In her notes, Loden informs us that this poem:
The USNS Comfort Sails to the Gulf
Huge red crosses on the whitewashed hull: http://www.comfort.navy.mil/welcome.html
ought to remind us of "In the Station of the Metro." But who needs notes to recognize the Creeley who is here:
As I sd to my friend, because I am always shopping,--John, I
sd, which was not his name, the market sur- rounds us, what
can we do against it, or else, shall we & why not, buy a Jaguar XKR,
floor it, he sd, for christ's sake, 4.9 seconds to 60 mph.
("I Know a Brand," 59).
Here the ghost of Robert Creeley comes to change brands from "man" to "car." Or it could be John Berryman trailing his Henry (qua John) behind him. There are too many more echoes to count, each a pincer in the heart of the last century, which gets its own poem, "Props to the Twentieth Century."
So, two scenes of ventriloquism: an evangelical real estate agent from Ohio utters a cascade of scripture at an Oahu beach, while Rachel Loden permits the worst of the 20th (and 21st) centuries to speak through her. One offers revival, redemption; the other promises an "end of miracles" (to quote Albert Wendt). One speaks his lines in absolute earnest, is a willing puppet for the Lord. The other is equally earnest, but her lines are wicked things, willing to be found beautiful once they meet the page, but composed of our historical wreckage (war, capital, deceit, greed). If I had met the evangelist later in the day, post-Rachel Loden/Richard Nixon, would I have left the park with more hope? I doubt it, but the day has seemed full of voices falling as if in some tropical snow globe (snow cone?), twin markers of an American culture that is nothing if not screwy.